Art in hotel bedrooms

Once upon a time ‘art’ on hotel bedroom walls was idiosyncratic. Sometimes a valuable heirloom. Sometimes worthless tat. Sometimes: the photograph of a long-dead beloved animal or a faded out of focus landscape; a drawing made by a child, treasured and proudly presented in double matted frame by doting parents (who had sold the hotel when they retired leaving the relic behind); a sampler suggesting wise ways in a bad world; a foxed watercolour by an unknown hand; an antique regional map; even religious iconography to comfort and assuage guilty souls as they fell asleep; and of course – hay wains, gambolling peasants, cattle (bereft of flies and dung) standing in picturesque slow moving rivers, wagons and dray horses trundling endlessly on, autumn leaves and enigmatic Asian ladies dressed in green cheongsams. Every room was unique – not any more.

Now we have corporate hotel chain art and it has as much resemblance to art as bananas do to fork lift trucks. And why is it there? I’d be happier with some aerosols and marker pens so I could do my own thing and the next occupier could do theirs and so on – there is even wallpaper that you’re supposed to colour in! Why not have that? But no, far too anarchic.

There are two types of ‘hotel bedroom chain art’: ‘reproduction’ and ‘original’. Let us leave aside questions such as: what is a reproduction, and what original, or even – what is art? Trotsky wrote, ‘Art is a hammer and not a mirror’ (the original quote is often incorrectly ascribed to Brecht – an example of revolutionary plagiarism perhaps?) but either would have seen hotel bedroom chain art as a mirror of societies fixated on style over substance, appearance over purpose and conventions devoid of conscious thought.

Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Introduction’ (1936) says: “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible … artifacts (sic) could always be imitated … by pupils … by masters for diffusing their work … by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art … represents something new.’

The bedrooms in hotel chains – from the cheap to the expensive – represent an entirely new universe where chain art exists in a state that not even Benjamin could imagine.

How is it possible for an ‘original’ painting of a sunflower in a field of poppies or golden barley against an azure sky be said to be an original when it will be found in exactly the same condition of originality in one hundred and fifty identical bedrooms? Its/they are obviously original because each canvas (yes they are on canvas) has been signed by the artist as the final part of laboriously painting all one hundred and fifty not quite identical, therefore original, canvases manufactured on a Fordian production line. This is at the top end of the market where such original art is commissioned by an interior decorator.

Lower down the market the hotel chain’s accountant has used catalogues to buy print runs of pastel shaded romances where Bavarian castles, lakes, ladies in crinolines and denizens of Barbara Cartland-like imaginations preen and pout in representations of Panglosian worlds where all is well in this best of all possible worlds and we all know our place. A hotel in Heraklion, Crete, boasted such fantasies – I couldn’t understand why. But then again there is Knossos.

I suppose what bothers me is the confusion between original and reproduction; that chain art is decoration just like wallpaper or those hundreds of bloody useless cushions that now cover hotel bedroom beds (where does one put them when you go to bed?); that it suggests that what is on these walls is art.

The meaning of such objects is not inherent in the work; there is no unity of head, heart and hand (no matter how romantic a notion that might now seem). Chain art signifies someone imagining that we need to be elevated to connoisseurs by being in the presence of art on our bedroom wall thus enhancing our visitor experience.

Bring on bare walls!

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Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery, London

Rembrandt: The Late Works
The National Gallery, London
Sainsbury Wing

I visited this show on 20.11.2104.

Let’s get the ‘negatives’ out of the way.

There’s no other way to put it – it’s in the cellar – and was like an oversold transatlantic flight except that no one was bumped because we all were! Bumping into one another that is. There were too many people crammed into rooms that were too small and claustrophobic. Why put work of such magnificence into galleries that are the wrong scale for the work? The lighting I can understand but in the space as it is the lighting is oppressive and increases the sense of being in a dungeon. If the attempt was to replicate some sort of ersatz ‘domestic’ environment then it doesn’t work. At a full price ticket of £18.00 it’s expensive enough. If I wanted to go to a gig where I expected to be jostled and couldn’t see the stage then fair enough but not here – this exhibition design just isn’t good enough.

And yet …
In between the heads, over shoulders in the gaps in the jostling throng you glimpse the work. It’s beautiful. In his self-portraits – at any moment his lips might move a smile flickering briefly across his face. In the portraits one expects a head to turn and a question be asked.

But it’s more than that …
The work is not ‘realist’, not some ancient form of photo-realism; rather it’s about the sense of a person more than their simple representation, it provides the texture of their being. In some ways he does with the face what Turner does to the sea and land because there is both so much and so little – things left out. You can fill it in just like in a conversation where we leave out so much but still understand the ‘other’. There is space in the work for me, the ‘other’, in the visual ‘conversation’. This dialogue engenders understanding – more than understanding – it creates empathy – more than that – the connection is emotional – Rembrandt paints emotion. He is as alive in that damn cellar at The National Gallery as he was on the day his brush lifted paint from his pallet and there is joy in that. It’s breathtaking.

Ebola: arrogance & indifference

It has been said that if the Ebola virus had originated on the mainland of Europe or in the USA then it would have already been defeated. An antidote to the virus would have been created. Science would have been applied. Which of the ‘Pharmas’, the ‘health’ conglomerates, are interested in creating life saving drugs that make them no profit?
There is a view that the initial lack of ‘concern’ for those suffering from Ebola was because African people were, for the G8 countries and China, in far away places one knew little about, or cared about even less about, and were not ‘important’. It has been suggested that this lack of concern was racist. It’s hard not to think this to be true.
But there’s more to it than that.
Ebola is a zoonotic viral disease (a virus that jumps from an animal to a human animal host). It’s been been around for some time, probably before 1976 when it was given its name. It has, in large part, been restricted to outbreaks in Africa with contamination spreading to other countries through bodily fluids passing between people. I’m not a scientist so I’m not trying to explain how this terrible virus works. I’m aiming to make another set of points that locate such disease within an arrogant western culture where the ‘natural world’ is held either in contempt or is romanticized.
There is a clear disjunction between science/medicine and those who hold political power. How else can one explain the lack of awareness shown by political leaders when told of the danger that Ebola presents? Political leadership, government, in the G8 is, to a large extent, focused on the management of money and the markets that make money from money for those that have money. A consequence of this is an inability to take the insights provided by science seriously – this ranges from a disbelief in climate change to a dismissal of Ebola as not worthy of curative investment – until of course there are cases in Europe and the USA.
There is another dimension to this arrogance and it’s this.
There are those that believe that we human beings are the natural and legitimate rulers of the natural world of Planet Earth. Humans are superior beings. We have the right to exploit the world’s resources as we see fit and often without a care as to the long-term consequences of our exploitation. We can defile and destroy entire habitats for profit. We can sacrifice the future for short-term gain. Sometimes we get it right and real benefits accrue to us humans – but there are always consequences. These are familiar arguments and I need not repeat them here.
The belief that humans are superior to all other creatures ignores, and thus diminishes, the existence of other indigenous life forms. One of these is the virus. Viruses, such as Ebola, are a fundamental and necessary part of the eco system that is planet earth. But that doesn’t make them benign, doesn’t make them safe and doesn’t mean they can arrogantly be ignored.
How can G8 governments and China be so ignorant, arrogant and dismissive of the realities and dangers of the natural world?
There are four reasons that may explain why the West acted so slowly in ploughing resources into fighting Ebola in West Africa:
1. Racism
2. Ignorance
3. Arrogance
4. The pursuit of financial profit above all else.